You never think it's going to happen to you—until it does. One minute, your wallet is snug in your back pocket or purse, and the next minute, you're frantically trying to figure out where you last had it when you realize you can't pay for anything.
This happened to me recently. Someone slyly lifted my wallet out of my purse while I was grocery shopping. I must have turned away for just a minute, but it was enough time for a thief to get exactly what they wanted, with me none the wiser. I only realized it was gone when my phone started blowing up with text messages from my credit card issuers, who were asking me if I really did just go on a multi-thousand-dollar shopping spree at Target.
Of course, I panicked. Luckily, I still had my phone with me and was able to get home, call all my issuers to cancel my credit cards. Since I never have much cash on me, I only lost $11, but my wallet had been full of other important stuff, like gift cards, my health insurance data, and the punch card at my favorite nail salon—not to mention the wallet itself that I really loved.
I did have to thank my lucky stars, though: My driver's license happened to be in a sleeve in my phone, though I usually keep it in my wallet. And of course I never keep my Social Security card in my wallet, so I didn't have to worry about my number getting in the wrong hands. But if you do carry your Social Security card in your wallet, stop what you're doing and remove it immediately.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, follow this checklist to limit your liability and protect your identity from further danger. When you start making your calls, be sure to keep a log of what you did, who you called and when.
1. Call Your Bank to Report Your Debit Card as Stolen
The first card I reported stolen was my debit card. As long as you report a debit card is missing within two business days of the loss, you're only responsible for up to $50 in unauthorized purchases.
If you wait more than two days (but less than 60), you could be on the hook for up to $500 in unauthorized purchases. If you wait longer than 60 days, you could be held responsible for all of them. Read more here about the difference between debit and credit cards.
But if a thief has accessed your bank account via your debit card, the money could be debited from your account—and it could take time to recover it. I didn't want my checking account to be touched, so my bank was the first call I made. Report that your card has been lost or stolen; they will cancel that card and send you a new one.
If you had checks in your wallet, report that immediately as well. Your bank can allow you to put a freeze on your checking account so that no purchases made via check will be approved. To protect yourself completely in the case of stolen checks, you will probably have to close that account and get a new one with a completely different number.
If you do this, make sure you update your direct deposit and automated monthly payment information. Learn more about check fraud here.
2. Call Your Credit Card Issuers to Report Your Cards as Stolen
You'll want to call your card issuers immediately and let them know your cards have been stolen. This is different from canceling or closing your credit cards, which can cause problems with your credit reports.
When you report a card as lost or stolen, the issuer will suspend those credit card numbers and send you new ones. They will also credit back any fraudulent charges to your account, although you can expect them to undergo a fraud investigation. If you have your credit cards set up with automated recurring payments, be sure to update the payments with the new credit card numbers.
Sometimes it can be difficult to remember which credit cards were in your wallet when it got lost or stolen. If you use an account aggregator site like Mint.com to keep track of your money, log in to get a list of all your active credit cards. That will allow you to cross-check which cards you have in your possession with the ones that were in the wallet.
You can also do this by looking at the current accounts on your credit report. It can be easy to forget about retail credit cards, so be sure to confirm you've gotten all of them. When I checked my credit report, I realized I had a rarely-used Old Navy credit card in my wallet and remembered to report it as stolen.
3. File a Police Report
It's very important to file a police report if your wallet is lost or stolen. You might be reluctant to do so, either because you don't think the police will be able to recover your stolen property (and it's likely they won't), or you believe that your matter is trivial.
However, filing a police report is vital to safeguarding your future identity: If you are the victim of further fraud or identity theft down the line, a police report will help serve as evidence that you were, indeed, the victim of a crime. Some credit card issuers or banks may also want the police report number as part of their fraud investigation.
When you file a police report, you'll be asked to provide a description of your wallet, what was in it, how, where and when it was stolen, and any other information you might have about the circumstances. If your credit cards were used, the police might ask you for the original card numbers and the locations and times of the fraudulent transactions.
Be sure to get the case number and a hard copy of the police report for your records. The police department may take some time to complete the report, so get your investigating officers business card and contact information so you can follow up.
4. Make a List of Everything That Was in Your Wallet
You'll eventually want to replace all the other important stuff in your wallet, like insurance cards. While it's still fresh in your mind, make a list of items that were in your wallet so you can contact the appropriate organizations.
You can request a replacement policy number on your insurance accounts so someone can't use your data for their own medical expenses. Read more here about medical identity theft.
5. Initiate a Fraud Alert on Your Credit Report
You'll want to protect your identity by monitoring your credit reports.
Start by filing a free initial security alert that is active on your account for 90 days at the Experian fraud center. The credit bureaus are legally required to share such alerts with the other two counterparts, so you don't need to file it with all three. This notifies lenders pulling your credit to take extra steps to verify your identity, but it does not block access to your credit report altogether.
If you want even more protection, you may want to consider freezing your credit, which will prevent lenders from extending new credit in your name altogether.
Credit freezes typically cost $10, though they can be up to $20. Remember, you also have to pay to unfreeze your credit if you need to apply for credit in your name, as well. (President Trump recently signed a bill that makes credit freezes free, but it won't go into effect until later this year.)
You may also want to consider enrolling in a credit monitoring product, like Experian IdentityWorks, which can help you keep tabs on your credit reports and identity.
6. Replace Your Driver's License
If your driver's license or state ID was in your wallet, you'll want to replace that as soon as possible. Each state has its own requirements for replacing a license; visit your state's DMV or Secretary of State website for details. The state may also ask you for a police report number if your ID has been stolen.
7. Report Your Social Security Number Stolen
If you carried your Social Security card in your wallet—which by the way, you should NEVER do—you'll want to be extra vigilant. The Social Security Administration can send you a new card, but you won't get a new number. That means you will want to take every precaution to avoid having your identity stolen.
In this case, an identity protection product like Experian IdentityWorks is vital to keep an eye on any inquiries or new accounts on your credit report that you don't recognize. You should also call the IRS Identity Protection Unit at 1-800-908-4490.
8. Get a New Wallet
While I loved my wallet, my mother tried to console me by suggesting that now I had the opportunity to go shopping for a new one. After you've taken care of all the necessary steps, treat yourself to a new wallet—and vow to be more vigilant about protecting it when you're out and about.
It's also a good idea to assess what you carry. It's a good idea to minimize the number of cards and items you carry in case your wallet is ever lost or stolen again.
Here are some additional resources to check out:
- What to Do If Your Identity Is Stolen
- How Stolen Information from Your Car Can Lead to Identity Theft
- How Much Your Personal Information Is Selling for on the Dark Web
- How to Replace a Social Security Card
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on July 12, 2018, and has been updated.